Glee and the Great Dichotomy

So. Let’s talk about Glee now that we’ve had a bit of breathing room without new episodes being crammed down our throats every week.

The argument that I most commonly see used to ‘explain’ the show to people like me who don’t like it, or people who like it but don’t like the depictions, is that Glee is meant to be satire. In fact, a lot of the things I said about Arrested Development yesterday are also said about Glee. We aren’t meant to laugh at the depictions and the jokes. We are meant to read them as critiques of the society we live in. Glee is holding the mirror up to society and demanding us to explore our own complicity.

Why are some folks not reading Glee that way? Why are some folks feeling like the show is not meeting the standard when it comes to presenting oppressive concepts in a way that is meant to deconstruct them?

I think that there are a couple of things going on here, and one of them is Glee’s stated intent. For the most part, I’m not that interested in creative intent. I am interested in how I read a show, and in the embedded messages it contains. This is whether or not the embedded content was intentional. In fact, I think it’s more telling when that content wasn’t meant to be there and ended up there anyway, illustrating how much of this stuff becomes internalised for us.

However, I make an exception in the case of Glee because the show is claiming to be doing something revolutionary. It’s congratulating itself for breaking down stereotypes and confronting social attitudes. Every week, it claims to be, well, ‘a TV show dedicated exclusively to the idea of inclusiveness and acceptance for all.’ That’s Ryan Murphy, talking about Glee. And the show is being widely referred to as living up to these values. It is winning awards for it. That means that I hold the show to a higher standard.

And, to my eye, there are two things going on here. One is that Murphy’s brand of humour is very particular. Some people like Murphy’s humour. Others do not. Many have pointed out that Nip/Tuck also has some extremely troubling content, which suggests that Murphy has kind of a bad track record here. It’s worth exploring that when considering how shrilly Murphy is presenting Glee as some sort of groundbreaking show. For me, I don’t find his humour enjoyable. I feel that it is oppressive and exploitative and it is very clear, to me, that oppressive things on the show are intended to be read as amusing. Not that oppressive things are presented and then taken down, but that they are presented without comment or actively praised.

Which brings me to the second problem with Glee, an issue that I noticed getting bigger and bigger with the last few episodes of the season. And that’s that the show does not have a very consistent tone. Indeed, one could safely show that the show is all over the place, and this is making the situation worse, in my opinion. If Glee could settle into being an earnest and fresh-faced teen show that is trying to teach people lessons, I would respect that. Hell, The Secret Life of the American Teenager is basically that, and I watched a few episodes on a recommendation from a friend. Not my cup of tea, not something I’m that interested in, but it is a genre, and some people like that.

Some people like their saccharine life lessons presented in nuggets of clear and crisp learning experiences. Kurt’s dad lecturing Finn on his language use. Mercedes accepting and embracing her size. And I note, casting my eye back on previous Glee reviews, that I consistently singled out these scenes to discuss because at the same time that they got a lot of praise from the media, they made me really uncomfortable. These Serious Learning Experiences feel totally out of place because they are bracketed by ‘parody’ that would be more accurately described ‘exploiting people in marginalised bodies to make people laugh.’

These moments don’t fit in with the tone of the show. Glee is presenting itself as snarky, fun, biting satire. And, for the most part, that is what it is trying to be. I don’t read the satire the same way that I do on Arrested Development because I feel like it doesn’t quite take the next step of satirising itself; when Glee does get meta, it’s usually to be snide about the people who criticise the show, as seen with some of the comments Mercedes makes about her characterisation. But that is what it is trying to be, and that’s why these Serious Learning Experiences feel so stilted and awful.

Glee is straddling a divide, and it’s doing it very badly. It cannot make its mind, flipping desperately between two very different modes. The show is trying to take itself seriously, and instead it just comes off as clumsy. I think that I might, actually, like the show if it could pick a consistent tone, clean house a bit, and stop taking itself so fucking seriously. The problem with Glee is that it presents these representations not in a way that challenges the viewer, but in a way that affirms it, and then it tries to insert Life Lessons, some of which are really bad lessons to learn, like ‘wheelchair users should just accept that they will never be dancers and move on with their lives.’

And this is why I get frothy with rage at people praising Glee. Because they point triumphantly to the Learning Experiences to negate the arguments being made by the show’s detractors. And the point that they are missing is that these Learning Experiences convey some very harmful and problematic attitudes sometimes. I criticise the show both for the humour, and for the serious, especially the Serious Learning Moments with Artie that, in my opinion, reinforce everything terrible I can imagine about disability.

That’s Glee’s problem, for me. The show cannot decide what it wants to be and it puts the onus on the viewers who challenge it. People can say they like it ‘despite the problematic content’ because of the way the show is positioning itself and being celebrated for it. They can feel comforted by familiar social attitudes that they wrap around themselves like a warm blanket while assuring themselves that they are fighting the power.

Either Glee is engaging in one of the longest payoffs ever with some of these representations, or it’s a pile of self-important shit that, aside from being problematic television, is just bad television. Raising the question of why Fox renewed it for, not one, but two seasons.